Strunk and White

The Elements of Style by Strunk and White. That lovely mini-bible among writers is the first book I chose to read for my 52-books-in-52-weeks resolution. And why? Because I’m also on a tirade against all people who think adverbs are to be avoided, and rumor has it that this ridiculous rule first came about thanks to Strunk and White.

White — not Strunk — did, in fact, encourage judicious use of the adverb, but I’ll get to that in a minute.

First, the book was simply charming. I loved it. It reiterates everything I know and love about proper writing, including regular interjections about when to break the rules. (Given that this is the mini-bible of writing, and has been for many decades, it’s probably no coincidence that my knowledge of writing rules consists entirely of the same rules the book preaches.)

That’s not to say the book is without flaws. One can practically hear the curmudgeonly old guy railing against an ignorant society that foolishly thinks adding -ize to a word is reasonable (the horrors of turning custom into customize!).  An entire chapter dedicated to improper word usage is almost entirely outdated. Both men also fail to stick to their own rules, breaking at least one rule on every page.

That said, one of my favorite aspects of the book is the authors’ repeated acknowledgements that the rules are meant to act more as guides, and that breaking these rules is often appropriate to clarify or strengthen a point. But this means people will have to think for themselves when applying these writing rules, and that’s where it all falls apart — especially with regard to adverbs.

Strunk, a professor in the early 1900s, wrote a little book of writing rules that he self-published and assigned to his students. White (and just to clarify, this is E.B. White of Charlotte’s Web fame) was one of his students. After Strunk’s death, White was asked to act as editor for this little book, and he added his own section at the end of Strunk’s work that provided a few more guides to writing. It’s in this section that the rule about adverbs appears.

My interpretation of White’s rule about adverbs and adjectives is that one should choose strong nouns and verbs when writing because adjectives and adverbs cannot satisfactorily improve weak words (please note that adjectives are given equal treatment in the book, though adverbs are, for some reason, the words that foolish writers have come to hate). White goes on to say that after strong nouns and verbs are chosen, adjectives and adverbs can then be used to strengthen the writing even more. That is hardly an admonishment to never use two entire groups of words. That’s simply a reminder to choose one’s words carefully.

White does go on to discourage the use of adverbs to describe speech in dialogue, which could be why the adverb has become more maligned than the adjective. This is especially unfortunate, since I think he’s wrong. And that brings up another important point about this book: It is the opinion of two men, and it is only the opinion of two men. (In the case of adverbs, it’s the opinion of one man.) These are not rules that came about when a huge group of scholars sat down to establish consistent writing requirements and expectations. In fact, anyone who knows anything about writing, linguistics and the English language knows that all “rules” are just guidelines that will evolve eventually. These are guidelines put together by two men, to offer what they believed to be strong writing techniques. That means other people can have differing opinions and still be right.

Sadly, we live in a world where people don’t like to think for themselves. They want hard and fast rules about what’s right and wrong. And if ever there was a field in which hard and fast rules can’t apply, it’s writing (or art in general). I see so many arguments against adverbs claiming they’re a sign of weak writing, but an even stronger sign of weak writing is not being able to recognize when a word enhances your writing and when it causes harm. If you can’t think for yourself, you shouldn’t be a writer.

My fight to save the adverb has only just begun. If you’re one of those people who thinks all adverbs are bad I encourage you to read The Elements of Style. In fact, if you ever write anything at all, you should read the book.


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